Friday, November 1, 2013

My Log 386: Propaganda (1): Randal Marlin’s magnificent work on propaganda, exhaustive in every detail, triggers a response in this layman

Randal Marlin
Randal Marlin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cover of "Propaganda and the Ethics of Pe...
Cover of Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion

However ambiguous my feeling about academics may be, I have to admit that if you hang out with them you can learn some very surprising things.  For example, I would never have dreamed that definition could have so many definitions as it has, if I had not been reading Randal Marlin’s magnificent second edition of his classic book, Propaganda and the Ethics of Persuasion, (published by Broadview Press, Peterborough, Ontario, pps 368,  $32.95.)
Searching, in his first chapter, for a satisfactory definition of propaganda, he thought he had better pause to examine the meaning of the word definition, and 4200 words later he had given us a tour d’horizon of at least seven varieties of definition --- descriptive, stipulative, hegemonic, persuasive, negative, neutral and favorable ---- before agonizingly arriving at his own definition of propaganda as
“the organized attempt through communication to affect belief or action or inculcate attitudes in a large audience in ways that circumvent or suppress an individual’s adequately informed rational, reflective judgment.”

Well, I reflected, in my layman’s way, that’s just the way academics and intellectuals carry on: they want to be sure they are not making a mistake or rushing to judgment, and I can’t really object to it. After all, they’ve got their tenure to keep in mind. (Cancel that low blow --- I tend to land low blows on professors, when I can  ---  and in any case this does not apply to Randal, who is now an emeritus professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.)
    Just as a matter of interest I thought I would compare Randal’s definition of propaganda with that given by my Oxford Dictionary. Leaving aside its original meaning as “a committee of cardinals of the Roman Catholic church having the care and oversight of foreign missions,”  the dictionary says propaganda  is
“any association, systemic scheme or concerted movement for the propagation of a particular doctrine or practice.”

To be honest I seldom read heavy, analytical books like this, fewer of them now, when I tend to go more for Ian Rankin or Henning Mankell, than ever before, but  this book of Randal’s  deals with subjects that have been close to my experience ever since I became a journalist in 1945, so I determined to get through it. It is a remarkable work, touching every conceivable aspect of its subject, bringing to it a mind that is open to every human experience, and of such considerable authority that I am sure it is going to be a text on which generations of intellectuals to come will be raised. (In other words, any of those boys and girls in their sloppy jeans whom I pass every day as  I walk through the McGill campus on my way to my favorite coffee shop on Sherbrooke street, who are misguided enough to study communications, can, I suppose, be expected to be raised on the enobling sentiments contained in Randal’s book, which certainly should leave them convinced, if they have any brains at all, that freedom of expression is desirable, although unduly restricted in our society by the power of money.)
 One thing that staggers me about intellectuals is the breadth of their reading and knowledge: Randal quotes no fewer than 442 texts, books, articles and the like, and there is every appearance that he has read them all. How did he ever find the time?
My problem in reviewing such a work is that I am one of nature’s laymen. When the word “university” springs to mind it releases the accompanying word “brainw  ashing” in my basically unstructured head, and I start to look imediately for slightly cruel jokes to make about them. But as I ploughed on through this text I kept thinking of things that I had experienced that seemed relevant, sometimes supportive of what Randal was saying, and sometimes not.
His account of the subject begins with the ancient Greeks, none of whom I have actually read, since my eyes tend to glaze over at the very thought of Aristotle and his chums, and he brings us up by way of Milton, John Stuart Mill and countless other authorities who have pronounced on freedom of expression, up to the ill-fated twentieth-century with its Communist show trials, Hitler, Goebbels, and other unspeakable tyrants who were expert in the use of propaganda. And he throws in a valuable account of the Internet in his last chapter.
The trouble with being so thorough, so far-reaching, was that at a certain point in the book I began to think that anything, any thought that one might have that one might wish to communicate to another person, any idea that one might have that one would wish to have society take up and propagate, seemed to come close to being denounced as propaganda. (Here again, I have to say that later in the book Randal recognizes this, and deplores it: a great example of having your cake and eating it, too.)
And this brought me to consider my own position in relation to all the dos and donts of Randal’s world. I don’t and never have, given a fig for the seven varieties of definition that had to be eliminated before he got to his own definition of propaganda. Nor, to be honest, have I ever really worried about propaganda. I grew up in a small country which, in 1935 elected a social-democratic government that held power for 14 of my most impressionable adolescent years. The most important political message I took from this period was that I never saw during these many years anything favorable --- not one thing! --- written about that socialist government by the nation’s newspapers. They all hated it vehemently. This was a formative experience, set me thinking I was a socialist, and I have never seen anything since to convince me that I was wrong. To hell with that being a deplorable ideological position. I spent 25 years working for the very newsapers whose politics I so deplored --- and I have to report they were all the same, in no matter which country, all of them desperate to attack democratic-socialism, all of them defending  to the hilt capitalism with all its faults and cruelties, and I learned how to survive among them by the tactic of quitting my job every three years or so and moving on to the next location.
I had only one experience that stood aside from this pattern, when I was a correspondent in London for The Montreal Star during the 1960s.  I was left strictly alone by the conservative brass of the paper, so long as I did not actually offend their sensibilities, or those our alcoholic publisher boss, and I knew how not to do that. I remember, three years after I returned to home office and found it necessary to quit the job, being assailed by my co-workers, other reporters, who accused me of being an ideologue. One young man pleaded, “I came to work in the paper because you were here,” and all I could do was shrug, unable to defend myself against their accusation that I was not really one of them.
The idea occurred to me as I pushed on through Randal’s book that, although it would be an insult for me to pretend to review it in the orthodox fashion, I might be able to write some amusing articles by comparing my attitudes with those of the imaginary person who might take all Randal’s information into account before putting pen to paper.
This is the first article in what could become four or five, maybe fewer --- I have no idea how many --- and the most I will be able to claim for them is that they are of no significance, something Randal has already commented on in a kindly reference on page 311 of his book to this blog, to which he gives the high accolade --- in my eyes --- “what is special about this publication, updated every few days, is that it gives an unapologetic, socialist viewpoint, unobtainable, at least on any regular basis,  in any Canadian mainstream publication that I know” ---- and ends it with the undoubtedly true comment: “However, without an advertising budget, how many know of its existence?”
Well, I can give him the information he is seeking. This blog has been in existence since 1996, making it, I believe, one of the oldest in existence. It has had several addresses because I have tended to regard it as merely a sounding off post on which I had neither the inclination nor the capacity to spend any money. Finally I have wound up on this google-owned blogger, a free service. And the figures for how many people know of my existence do not, as he suggests, make sensational reading. They come as “pageviews” whatever the definition of that is I am not sure, but it seems I have had 13 today, 22 yesterday, 1057 last month, and in the three or four years I have been on this site, an all-time total of 26,445.  Of course, that probably means, if someone read an article of five pages, it would go into the stats as five pageviews (I suppose).
On the other hand, a surprising figure is where these viewers come from. No fewer than 14 different countries have happened upon my site, overwhemingly in Canada (285 pageviews last month) and the United States (236), but including  such diverse places as Poland,  the United Kingdom, Australia, China, Croatia, Bosnia, Switzerland, Israel, India, Russia, Germany and the Ukraine. To which might be added members of my family in New Zealand.
These, by the standards of anyone wanting to influence opinion, are minuscule figures. But, as the tone of this entry no doubt indicates, I am only doing it to keep myself occupied. Although, of course, if it did help to stimulate a revolution, that would be good!
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